Heat wave response: Philly’s quadrupling homeless outreach for Code Red

The “feels like” temp could hit 113 degrees.

Pre-heat wave, Kevin Riordan (left) and Carrie Wagner offer services to a person experiencing homelessness.

Pre-heat wave, Kevin Riordan (left) and Carrie Wagner offer services to a person experiencing homelessness.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

The incoming heat wave had only started to tease Philadelphia on Thursday morning, but the 85-degree thermometer reading was already paired with an uncomfortable dose of humidity.

In Logan Square, Carrie Wagner and Owen Riordan were working their way around the park.

Not everyone accepted the bottles of water they offered, but most did. Fewer took them up on the suggestion to come back with them to a shelter, where air conditioning would provide a respite from the sweltering air.

With the mercury forecast to reach the high 90s, bringing “feels like” temps up to 113 degrees, the National Weather Service has issued an excessive heat warning for the region, and the city extended a heat health emergency through Monday evening.

For Philly’s homeless population, that means a Code Red is in effect — and outreach workers are scrambling to get them inside.

On regular weekends, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services and the Office of Homeless Services typically deploy one or two groups of workers. But this weekend, they’re sending out four team, all-in-all quadrupling the number of people on the street.

Carrie Wagner gave out water bottles and lists of cooling centers on Thursday morning.

Carrie Wagner gave out water bottles and lists of cooling centers on Thursday morning.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

The effort is done strategically, with staff sent to specific city-identified “hot spots” where homeless Philadelphians are most often found. Billy Penn rode along with a team dispatched to the Ben Franklin Parkway to see the workers in action.

“Our main goal is that people don’t die on the street,” said Wagner, a multi-year veteran of the summertime effort. “We want to make sure they’re as safe as they can be.”

Basically the opposite of a Code Blue, a Code Red kicks in when the temperature surpasses 95 degrees for at least two days in a row.

At last count, there were more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness on Philly’s streets. And for them, the excessive heat can be just as dangerous as the cold.

“Because the temperature is expected to be so high, we’re worried,” said Bridgette Tobler, manager of homeless outreach at DBHIDS. “The more hands, the better.”


The homeless outreach van was stocked with two cases of water on Thursday.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Workers understand the pressure to get people inside — and fast — so they don’t suffer serious heat-related injury (think heat stroke or intense sunburns). They also understand you can’t force anyone to accept services, and if you try, you might do more harm than good.

“We’re encouraging folks to engage in safe behavior during the heat,” Wagner said. “We know a lot of our folks are pretty vulnerable, so we like to try to check in during the hot weather.”

It’s a time-consuming process. In the two hours that Riordan and Wagner were out on Thursday, they only got time to visit that one Logan Square hot spot. They spoke to about a dozen people staying there, and provided only one with shelter services.

That one person alone took almost 45 minutes to engage. Once the team realized she was willing to accept help, they called a different street outreach team that could handle intake. As they waited, the workers stayed with her to keep her comfortable.

The outreach team recommended folks remove layers and sit in the shade.

The outreach team recommended folks remove layers and sit in the shade.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Of course, Wagner would love if everyone accepted shelter in advance of the heat. But some people just won’t — maybe because they’ve had bad experiences with homeless shelters or crowds, or the building’s in a neighborhood far from their familiar surroundings.

“Success for homeless outreach can be defined in different ways,” Riordan said. “Obviously a bed placement, that’s a pretty big one. But also just knowing people are OK, seeing people dressed appropriately for the weather, sitting in the shade, those are kind of successes too.”

The duo handed out water and lists of cooling centers, and encouraged folks to sit in the shade and remove some layers of clothing. Meanwhile, they asked people’s names and where they’re sleeping — hoping to form lasting, trusting relationships for the future.

“It’s always worth it,” Riordan added. “Every single time it’s worth it. Even if you walk over 15 times and they tell you to go to hell, you still go over and try. Because you never know.”

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